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Learning by Making with Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami (Photo by Sholeh Zahraei)

Lucid Dreaming. Alchemy. These are two unlikely explanations to consider for what I’m still not sure ever could have happened. As one of 52 filmmakers invited to participate in the Taller de filmando en Cuba con Abbas Kiarostami, I am not alone in describing the workshop as being similar to a somnambulistic experience. We bore witness to unexpected swathes of time that, along with illuminating encounters, metamorphosed into stories seemingly cut from the ethereal sun-drenched humidity and slow pace of our environs. A welcome retreat for both visitors and filmmakers alike, the Escuela de Cine y Television sits atop a 21-acre farm, overlooking sectioned protreros, and serving as a perfect vista for the long, rectangular micro-brigade-built pueblos rising from the flora in the distance. Languorous smoke pillars connect land to firmament and wild palms frame the radiant sunrises and sunsets. It is a veritable recess from phone and internet distractions where a multicultural student body interacts over coffee and cigarettes, lazing in patio furniture and enjoying afternoon strolls across its pastures. This rural idyll served as a panorama for filmmakers from 26 countries, who, under the guidance of Master Kiarostami, would cast, write, shoot, edit, and deliver 52 short films over the next ten days. Needless to say, it was a perfect setting for a workshop, inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ notion of “learning by making.”

EICTV itself is one of the premiere film schools in the Western Hemisphere. Like an anarchistic AFI, its conservatory approach invites revered filmmakers from all over the world to lead hands-on workshops for their students. Upon leaving, they scrawl any last words as aphorisms that decorate the walls in colorful graffiti:

DON’T LET THE FUCKERS GET YA” — Jim Jarmusch

“Groucho Marx + Karl Marx = The Queen – Stephen Frears

A short film is an arrow to the heart” – Eliseo Altunaga

Just two more things: voyage et cinéma” – Isabelle Huppert

ART NEVER SLEEPS” – Francis Ford Coppola

A revolutionary attitude toward cinema is encouraged here and an insurrectionary approach emerges from even the most reticent auteurs and artists. For student body and visitors alike, the school creates an egalitarian forum that evokes expressionistic work. The alchemical nature of the workshop, however, can wholly be attributed to Estephania Bonnett, Liliana Diaz, and Juliana Revelo. These three indomitable women, who comprise Black Factory Cinema, hand-crafted a program culled from myriad applicants and instituted it with a manic grace (seemingly contradictory, but befitting of the countenance needed to pull off such a feat). Filmmakers in their own right, Cuba is the third venue for the workshop which they organize annually for a select group of international filmmakers to convene with the master. Throughout its course, they never flinched at the monumental task of co-producing 52 films in only a few weeks. Their ability to adapt and elicit beautiful work from the attendees was an inspiration for many of us to ask “Why are we not doing the same in our home countries?” By the end, the filmmakers were bonded for life and inspired by their tireless efforts to pay it forward upon our return.

In the lecture hall on the very first day, a fever-pitch tone was set for what would become our daily convocations. Through three interpreters, we hung on Abbas’ every word: first in Farsi, then Spanish, and finally English — the scene was serendipitously reminiscent of the opening scene of Certified Copy. Remarkably, gems of wisdom, though altering slightly in connotation, retained their universal values from one end of translation to the other. It felt similar to reading poetry in a foreign language (Armen, one of our filmmaker/translators, goes into greater detail below). In real time, though, we were slowly understanding how Abbas’ brilliance persisted through several languages to retain its universal essence which is so beloved across the world. Overall, the well-thought-out ingredients of master, location, and a diversity of voices yielded something unexpected. Cuba made for a fitting venue. It’s timelessness and singularity took each filmmaker, no matter their background, beyond any level of comfort. The results, rendered on-screen through a variety of cultural lenses, exposed as much about ourselves as the country itself. It was a meeting ground both in theory and practice. Yet, we always felt safe. Abbas’ presence was strongly felt both physically and conceptually. While his words drifted through our minds after our daily meeting; personally, he was kind enough to offer his patience and advice: joining our sets, sharing meals, and walking with us around the grounds.

For a kaleidoscopic view of the workshop, I asked the filmmakers involved to share anecdotes about their time with Abbas and their experience in the workshop. Below are several accounts:

Armen Sarvar (Iran/Armenia): “The first time Kiarostami started speaking I could feel a very pleasant balance between daily Persian and poetic Persian which I had only read in books. It wasn’t only the choice of words but also the rhythm that he would speak. As I was translating his words, I realized how distant I’d become from this fascinating language. Due to a negative image of Iran in the western media, speaking the language or knowing that ancient culture seemed more like a disadvantage in my distorted mind. But being confronted with a man who had come from that very same country with so much knowledge and positivity for Persian culture made me fall back in love with the language all over again.”

Komtouch Napattaloong (Thailand): “Everyone came together from various corners of the world with a common passion and love — sharing different experiences and knowledge in the kindest way possible. I remember on the first session with Abbas, I had brought this up in the class. He responded by saying that everyone there was like jewels and he was the chain linking us all together. I am willing to say that this beautiful bracelet that Abbas has made will not break easily.”

Pedro Freire (Brazil): “You arrive in one of the most interesting places in the world, Cuba, but you only want to listen to one of the most interesting artists in the world — Abbas Kiarostami. Then he speaks, and soon you realize that the thing he really wants from you is to stop listening to him and go film this amazing place, but he says that in a way that makes you understand why you chose the life of being a filmmaker.”

Anjoum Agrama (USA): “One of the memories I will always think back on fondly is when Abbas and I went to the ranch on the school’s property. I was filming a shepherd and Abbas was hoping to film the oxen. We walked over together and, once there, found that one of the sheep had given birth to three babies the night before. Abbas encouraged me to use this real event as part of my short. This one-on-one time was very special to me and a fascinating insight into how he works.”

Jude Chehab (Lebanon): “I approached the Master in deep concern regarding how to justly portray my state of ecstasy with the people’s routine — similar to his ecstasy with nature. He told me to go ahead and ask them for a cup of water and to take from them — but to also give from myself, for they are not the storytellers. I view everything differently now. I’ve learned that I must understand the human condition before ever trying to depict realism in cinema.”

Frank Mosley (USA): “Our friend’s soles had started to peel off from the tip of the toe to the back of the heel. They were the only shoes she had on the trip. Since tape is hard to come by in Cuba, we ended up borrowing the duct tape that had been used to hold down Abbas’ DSLR to the dashboard of a car in order to repair them. He suddenly appeared, alarmed that we were removing the tape as he had not finished shooting the scene. When we explained what we were using it for, he calmly nodded and with a wry smile said: “I should make my film about this instead.”

Hira Nabi (Pakistan): “Abbas said something very sensible during one of our classes. He told us that a short film, like a short story, must have an event that defines it. There is no time, in the short film, to develop relations with characters, no time to feel them, to learn their hearts and minds, and to understand their motivations. That stuff is for a feature. A short must have a central event that moves it. I do wish to preserve, and share this piece of advice, and carry it forward hereon.”

Hannah Moore (Australia): “I ran into Abbas one night, exhausted and disappointed from my dayʼs filming. He asked how I went. It had been stressful wrangling non-actors. Oftentimes, theyʼd just disappear never to return. My main actor, who wasnʼt an actor at all (but an 84-year-old man from the local village) had kept looking to the camera. ʻSo,ʼ Abbas said nonchalantly, ʻthat doesnʼt matter. Let him look at the camera. Then it just becomes an understanding with the audience.ʼ I smiled and all the rules I had been leaning on crumbled beneath me. It was a thrilling kind of freedom he offered.”

At the end of the workshop, Abbas reminded us kindly, “you have now made a short film in ten days, why didn’t you make a feature last year?” It was a good question and a potent challenge many filmmakers often find themselves too distracted even to consider. In fact, Abbas remarked that not having our phones or internet was an advantage we had over prior workshops. With the current state of technology, we have the capability to share stories easily and hear from a greater diversity of voices. Now that we are home, we have to continue with the confidence Abbas instilled in us: to never stop creating and be responsible to our peers in helping their voice be heard. We accomplished this for each other in the workshop, and our success and newly-formed bonds gives me hope it could occur on a greater stage. While dream-like and magical, these newfound relationships serve as the proof we shared an unforgettable two weeks of our lives — a chain of jewels swinging in the ether. So, to all of the authors, Master Kiarostami, and our Cuban friends, I offer the words painted by Asghar Farhadi on the textured walls of EICTV: “I’ll always remember the beautiful memory of having been with you all.”

Black Factory Cinema will be curating a 4th workshop in 2017. Please visit www.blackfactorycinema.com for updates and be on the lookout for the Filmando en Cuba con Abbas Kiarostami short films to be touring the festival circuit in the coming year.

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